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What is Passover and How Can You Mark it in Your Setting?

What is Passover?

Passover is one of the most important festivals in the Jewish year. It begins on the 15th day of Nisan, which is the first month of the Jewish calendar, and is celebrated for 7 days. It celebrates the story of Exodus, where God punished the Pharaoh and Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt and slavery.

Passover begins with the first night's seder, or ritual service and dinner, usually shared with family and friends at home, or with the wider community. During the meal the story of Exodus is told from a book called the 'Hagaddah', or 'Narration', with everybody taking a turn to read- see below for the story of Exodus. Other customs as part of the seder include a discussion of the story of Exodus, drinking four cups of wine, eating Matzah/Matzo bread, eating symbolic foods placed on the Seder Plate, and reclining to honour freedom from slavery.

The Seder Plate has six indentations and on it is placed a roasted egg, for new life, bitter herbs to remind people of the hard lives the ancient Jewish people had to lead, parsley to represent spring (which is dipped in salt water to symbolise tears), charoset, a mixture of apple and honey representing the mortar of the slaves' homes, a shank bone in memory of the slaughtered lambs, and lettuce or horseradish to remember once more the slaves' bitter lives.

There is an obligation to drink from four cups of wine, representing the 'four expressions of deliverance'– "I will bring out," "I will deliver," "I will redeem," and "I will take." They also carry symbolic power to represent four worlds, and the four matriarchs Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel and Leah. Matzo bread, or "poor persons bread", and "bread of freedom", is also consumed. Later the Matzo is dipped into the wine while reclining, to symbolise freedom.

Many Jewish people also celebrate a second seder on the second night of passover.

As a festival Passover has many ties to spring and renewal, taking place as it does on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, celebrating the Jewish people's liberation and independence.

A key element of Passover is that it is a very personal festival, and in sharing the story of Exodus it is important that it is a highly personal retelling, with consideration of how the account makes you feel and what personal meaning it conjures.

There are four Hebrew names for Passover, reflecting different elements and aspects of the festival. These are:

Pesach: 'Passing over', as the Jewish families were passed over during the tenth plague.

Chag Ha-matzot: “Festival of Unleavened Breads"

Z’man Cheiruteinu: “The Time of Liberation”

Chag Ha-aviv: "Festival of Spring".

The Bible book of Exodus
Photographer: Sincerely Media | Source: Unsplash

What is the Story of Exodus?

Exodus, which dates from the 13th century BCE, is the account of the Jewish people's liberation from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh.

When Moses was born he was born into slavery. The Pharaoh was afraid that one day his Jewish slaves would rise up against him, and so ordered his soldiers to kill all the baby boys at birth so that they could not grow up to challenge his power.

To save Moses his mother put him in a basket and set him adrift on the Nile, putting her faith in God that he would protect Moses.

Moses floated down the river, where he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him and raised him as her son. Growing up in the palace as a prince, Moses ultimately had to flee Egypt after killing an Egyptian who had beaten a Jewish slave to death.

He worked as a shephered for 40 years in the land of Midian, until he heard the voice of God coming from a burning bush. God told Moses to lead his people out of slavery and out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

Moses returned to Egypt and demanded of the Pharaoh that the Jewish slaves be freed. After the Pharaoh refused, God punished him by visiting Ten Plagues upon Egypt.

The Ten Plagues devastated Egypt, and after the tenth the Pharaoh let them go. By this time the eldest son in every Egyptian family had died, including the Pharaoh's own son, while the Jewish people in Egypt had been able to keep their sons safe by marking their doors with lamb's blood as a symbol for the Angel of Death to pass over them.

Once given their freedom the Hebrews fled Egypt, where they were pursued by the Pharaoh's army to the shore of the Red Sea, leaving them trapped and with nowhere to turn. God instructed Moses to raise his staff, which parted the waters to make a pathway. When they had successfully crossed Moses raised his staff again and the waters collapsed on the Pharaoh's soldiers, meaning that the Jewish people who had fled Egypt were finally free.

Moses led his people through the desert in search of Canaan, which was a land that God had promised them. Along the way there were miracles. As they ran out of food some people began to turn on Moses, who promised that God would provide them food. The next day the ground was covered in a sweet food similar to honey, and a flock of birds arrived which they cooked and ate.

As their water ran out God commanded Moses to strike a rock with his staff, which produced an abundance of water.

Three months of travelling came to an end at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses was summoned to meet with God at the top of the mountain. As he climbed he was challenged by an intense thunderstorm.

Upon reaching the top Moses was given by God ten laws by which his people were expected to abide, known as the Ten Commandments, written on two stone tablets.

ten commandments, Jerusalem, Israel
ten commandments, Jerusalem, Israel

Moses was gone a very long time and, during this period, some of those waiting grew impatient and chose another god to worship, a golden calf. Upon finding the calf being worshipped Moses was angry, broke the tablets in two and destroyed the calf. God forgave the people for worshipping the calf and instructed Moses to make another two tablets.

Moses shared the commandments with the people and they became laws that they would follow afterward.

Passover Ten Plagues of Egypt written in Hebrew- Vector Illustration
Passover Ten Plagues of Egypt written in Hebrew- Vector Illustration

What Were the Ten Plagues?

1. Turning water into blood, Ex. 7:14–2: "This is what the LORD says: By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hands I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water." — Exodus 7:17–18

2. Frogs, Ex. 7:25–8:15: "This is what the great LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials. — Exodus 8:1–4

3. Lice or Gnats, Ex. 8:16–19:""And the LORD said… Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt…. When Aaron stretched out his hand with the rod and struck the dust of the ground, lice came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became lice. — Exodus 8:16–17

4. Wild Animals and Flies Ex. 8:20–32:"And the LORD did so; and there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants' houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies."

5. Pestilence of livestock, Ex. 9:1–7: "This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats."

6. Boils, Ex. 9:8–12: *"Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land.""

7. Thunderstorm of hail and fire, Ex. 9:13–35: "The LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation."

8. Locusts, Ex. 10:1–20: "If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now."

9. Darkness for three days, Ex. 10:21–29: "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt." So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days."

10. Death of firstborn, Ex. 11:1–12:36: "This is what the LORD says: "About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.""

How Can You Mark Passover in Your Setting This Week?

Involve members of your local Jewish community: It is very likely that people in your local community, or family members of children in your setting, will be delighted to share their experience of Passover and what it means to them with your early years. Of course it is equally vital to be respectful if a person does not want to!

Involving members of a community is always a good idea when sharing any cultural or religious event with children as as not to reduce anybody’s culture to a simple set of activities or areas of learning.

You could share the story of Exodus with the children in your setting, highlighting that this is a very important belief and time of year to Jewish people in our community. This could be during Circle Time or reading the book The Story of Passover by David A. Adler in your setting.

passover bread with garlic on wooden background
passover bread with garlic on wooden backgrounP

You could also use our Matzo Bread activity plan– it requires little by way of preparation and is as simple a cooking plan as you can try in your setting!

Another fun way to mark Passover is with a sweeping game. For some Jewish people the period before Passover is used for intensive sweeping and cleaning of the home, a ritual meant to clear the home of chametz, which is food and drink containing yeast powder as a reminder of the loaves they had to bake in the sun during their rapid escape from the Pharaoh and his army.